Jaguar's capture flawed, some say

Use of more detailed guidelines on handling might have helped
2009-04-12T00:00:00Z Jaguar's capture flawed, some sayBy Tony Davis and Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The State Game and Fish employees who captured Macho B Feb. 18 used the simplest existing protocol for handling the wild cat, not a more complete one that could have better protected the nation's last known wild jaguar.

Using the more extensive jaguar-capture protocol may have improved Macho B's chances for survival, said three out-of-state veterinarians who reviewed the case for the Star. After slowing down and showing other signs of health trouble, the jaguar was recaptured March 2 and euthanized that day at the Phoenix Zoo.

The protocol used was for an inadvertent capture, while the more complete protocol is for an intentional capture.

Game and Fish said the jaguar's capture was inadvertent and happened during a study of mountain lions and bears, although a researcher on the project later said she had placed female jaguar scat at the snare in an apparent effort to attract Macho B. The protocol the state uses for an inadvertent capture says a captured jaguar should be treated at the scene and released, or taken to a veterinarian experienced in working with large or wild animals.

A more complete capture protocol was prepared in 2007 for the Jaguar Conservation Team, an Arizona-New Mexico-based group of agency officials formed to lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts to protect the endangered jaguar. That protocol, which the state didn't follow, includes these steps:

• Two teams are formed to prepare for the capture, one for risk assessment and one for the capture itself.

• Researchers should consider monitoring the traps electronically to minimize the time a jaguar would be caught in the trap. A risk assessment prepared for the same team two years earlier said electronic monitoring should definitely be done.

• A licensed veterinarian with recent experience treating wild cats is on the scene, along with a biologist who had recently captured a jaguar and an assistant.

• Blood is drawn to perform disease analysis at the time of capture.

Capture methods compared

The University of California-Davis uses many of the same tools for capturing mountain lions that the 2007 jaguar protocol recommends for deliberate jaguar capture, said Walter Boyce, a professor, wildlife veterinarian and biologist who heads the university's Wildlife Health Center.

Those steps include having vets at the scene, electronic monitoring of all of its trap sites and taking blood samples for health analysis.

"They should have been doing all those things for mountain lions, much less jaguars," Boyce said. "It boils down to doing the highest level of care and preparation for the animal, to minimize the chance of something going wrong, to be prepared as possible if something does."

However, a wildlife biologist who participated in the recapture of Macho B and has captured more than 100 wild cats, including jaguars, said the state's methods were fine.

"The way they were handling the snares for pumas, bears and jaguar was perfectly normal," said Brian Jansen, who has undergraduate and master's degrees in biology from the University of Arizona. He was on hand for Macho B's recapture March 2 at the request of Game and Fish.

In response to questions about the protocol used in Macho B's capture, Arizona Game and Fish issued a statement saying it would not comment because investigations into the capture, recapture and euthanization of Macho B are ongoing. (The full statement accompanies this story.) However, some Game and Fish employees were interviewed about the capture before the investigations were announced.

Capture not intended

The question of which protocol should have been used hinges largely on the question of whether Macho B's capture was intentional.

The answer centers on Emil McCain, a biologist for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project who also has done some work for Arizona Game and Fish.

McCain has repeatedly said they were not trying to capture a jaguar. So have state officials. They said the project was targeted at capturing and radio-collaring black bears and mountain lions along the Mexican border, and indeed some of them had been collared.

But interviews and public records related to the capture suggest otherwise. In 2007, during a conference in Tucson, McCain and Blake Henke began discussing using a radio collar sold by Henke's company, North Star Science and Technology, on a jaguar, Henke said.

At the time, Henke said, McCain specifically mentioned Macho B as the jaguar the collar would be for.

"From my understanding, while they had seen some others, they didn't think they were residents," Henke said. "They were pretty sure he was resident."

E-mails obtained under a public-records request show that McCain, Henke and Game and Fish officials were preparing to capture a jaguar in the weeks before Feb. 18. A Feb. 13 e-mail from McCain to Henke said "there is fresh jaguar sign" in the area where traps were set for bears and mountain lions.

Janay Brun, a tracker for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, said that on Feb. 4 she placed female jaguar scat at the trap where Macho B would be caught two weeks later to try to lure a jaguar. Brun said project biologist McCain ordered her to place the scat, although he has denied that.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened investigations into the capture after evidence emerged of possible efforts to lure a jaguar to a trap.

Lack of monitoring

A key problem with the capture, three California veterinarians said, was the lack of electronic monitoring of the snares.

The jaguar was discovered in the trap at 9 a.m. Feb. 18 by two biologist-technicians employed by Game and Fish. Because photos had indicated that Macho B generally moved at night, Game and Fish officials said shortly after the capture that the animal had likely been trapped for three to 14 hours.

It was "absolutely inexcusable" for the state to not have electric monitoring of the snare traps in a protocol intended for the only jaguar known to live in the United States, said Winston Vickers of the University of California-Davis.

The amount of equipment needed for such monitoring is minimal, he said. Electronic monitors send a radio signal that sets off an alarm.

When using snares on big animals that are likely to injure themselves, such as bears, mountain lions and jaguars, it is standard to use radio transmitters that alert researchers to a capture, said David Jessup a senior wildlife veterinarian for the California Game and Fish Department.

"Allowing a bear or cougar to struggle for 12 hours isn't, in my opinion, professionally acceptable," Jessup said.

But biologist Jansen noted that electronic monitoring could be difficult in the terrain where Macho B was wandering — full of canyons and overhangs that might prevent an electronic signal from escaping.

"Transmitters like these collars, they don't have very much range," he said. "Most snare sites are in canyon bottoms. Unless you are in a canyon with a snare, you won't be able to hear the monitor."

Electronic monitoring of traps is done only if there is a particular need to be concerned about an animal in a trap, Jansen said — for instance, if it is going to be particularly cold.

The low reached 30 degrees in nearby Nogales the night of Macho B's capture, and the cat had a body temperature of 94.8 degrees when encountered. Normal for a jaguar is 98.6 to 103.1.

Arizona Game and Fish doesn't typically put alarms on traps because they are costly, said Chantal O'Brien, chief of the department's research branch.

Vet might have helped

Macho B's chances might have been better, the California veterinarians said, had a veterinarian been on the scene — as required by the protocol for intentional captures.

Such captures are stressful and potentially traumatic to an animal, so a vet is especially important when capturing an endangered species, Jessup said.

"A vet on the scene can give an animal fluids, help it get warm faster if needed, determine what condition the guy is in and give an idea how critical the follow-up needed to be," Jessup said. "He could give it antibiotics if needed and treat a wound."

In Brazil, authorities require that a veterinarian be present for any effort to capture a jaguar, said Eric Gese, a research biologist for the USDA's National Wildlife Research Center in Logan, Utah.

Gese trapped and radio-collared 10 jaguars while working in southern Brazil, he said. He also served on the Jaguar Conservation Team's scientific advisory team.

But Jansen — a capture and research assistant adviser for the non-profit Felidae Conservation Fund, which specializes in protecting large cats, as well as a Ph.D graduate research assistant at South Dakota State University — took issue with the idea that a vet on the scene is necessary, even for an intentional capture.

"I've caught jaguars in Belize, and we didn't have vets on the scene. We had volunteer vets in Peru for jaguar and puma captures."

The biologist-technicians who found Macho B in the trap site were trained in immobilizing and anesthetizing a jaguar and had the jaguar protocols with them, said Bill Van Pelt, the department's birds and mammals program manager.

"Pretty inexcusable"

If a veterinarian had been present at Macho B's capture as recommended by the intentional-capture protocol, a blood for disease analysis would have been required . But researchers only drew blood in a method used for genetic analysis.

"The failure to collect blood at large mammal captures anywhere in the U.S. is pretty inexcusable from an animal health, human health, and research perspective," wildlife veterinarian Boyce said. "It should be done, whenever you have an animal in hand."

Arizona Game and Fish's failure to draw blood for health analysis in Macho B's initial capture became an issue after his death March 2. That day, medical officials drew blood for thorough testing and concluded the jaguar had kidney disease, a conclusion that has since been disputed. If blood were drawn for health analysis at the initial capture, Feb. 18, researchers might have known whether Macho B had pre-existing problems, or whether they were brought on by the capture and collaring.

Biologist Gese said that when he researches jaguars in Brazil, he doesn't do blood work for health screening. That's partly because of the logistics of storing and shipping blood samples due to the remoteness of research areas. But Gese also said that a blood sample taken right after a capture is often skewed by that event and not necessarily reflective of the animal's health.

"It is a snapshot in time. It doesn't tell you how the animal is progressing," said Gese, who is also an assistant professor of ecology and wildlife resources at Utah State University.

Snare-trapping stopped

After Macho B's capture, the state halted snare trapping for the bear-lion project because officials wanted to review the jaguar protocols, said Terry Johnson, Game and Fish's endangered-species coordinator.

The state resumed trapping on March 23 only in the Huachuca Mountains — well east of where Macho B was captured. It halted trapping there two days later, but in that period captured, collared and released one male bear.

As Game and Fish and the Jaguar Conservation Team consider whether to revise the jaguar-capture guidelines, Johnson said opinions like those of the California veterinarians will be considered. However, in mid-March he lashed out at "second-guessing" by critics of how the department handled the capture.

"These folks hammering us on all this stuff, alleging all kinds of crap, well, we make judgment calls like these every single day," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "Ninety eight to 99 percent of these judgments, decisions and actions turn out right, you get the information you want and no animal is harmed. Then something goes wrong, and everyone is second-guessing everything."

Arizona Game and Fish caught Macho B in a snare trap, even though a risk assessment done four years ago found that using snares was by far the riskiest of three possible jaguar capture methods.

The report concluded that using hounds to trap a jaguar would be less risky and more effective than using snares and that a third method called box traps also offered more positives than negatives. The snare method had more negatives than positives, said the report, prepared for the Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team, a group of government agency officials who work in a voluntary partnership with ranchers, environmentalists and other private individuals on jaguar conservation issues.

The risk assessment wasn't followed in the trapping of Macho B, because it was meant primarily for use in deliberate jaguar captures. Macho B was captured accidentally during a study of bears and mountain lions, Game and Fish officials said after Macho B's March 2 death. A Game and Fish official said at the time that both snares and hounds have risks.

"Pursuit by hounds has led to tired animals and can result in exhausted animals. It tends to be a much more extensive form of capture than leg-hold snares. You have to have dogs, dog handlers, horses and mules when pursuing an animal. We have to consider the cost and the safety for dogs and handlers," said Chantal O'Brien, Game and Fish's research branch chief. "With animals we are capturing, we had high success rates, and it was cheaper for snares."

After Macho B's death, the state halted all snare-trapping activities for the bear-lion project because officials wanted to review the jaguar protocols , said Terry Johnson, Game and Fish's endangered-species coordinator. Since then, bear trapping has resumed in some parts of Southern Arizona, but not in the mountains northwest of Nogales where Macho B was captured.

Snares do work, some wildlife veterinarians said, but are risky and should be used sparingly.

"The potential for injury with a snare is greater than any other method you might use to catch an animal," said Walter Boyce, a wildlife veterinarian, biologist and professor at the University of California-Davis. "The longer an animal is restrained, the more stressed it will be. You should want to get an animal out of a snare as soon as possible."

A photograph of Macho B shows a snare that appears to be tightly constricting the animal's leg, and to have that there for hours is inappropriate, he said.

Macho B ended up with the snare anchor wrapped around a tree and his paw elevated above his body. Such a situation can dramatically increase the chances of serious injury, said Winston Vickers, a UC-Davis veterinarian who works with Boyce in collaring and monitoring mountain lions.

the protocol

The three-page "Jaguar Handling Protocol" put together by the Arizona-New Mexico Jaguar Conservation Team is much less detailed than the 10-page "Jaguar Capture Guidelines" issued by the same group for an intentional capture.

The main instructions in the protocol for an inadvertent capture are in this paragraph:

"If necessary, jaguars that are handled will be anesthetized, processed and released on site. Processing includes taking standard physical measurements (weight, length, girth, pad sizes, skull and tooth dimensions); estimating age; assessing physical condition; taking blood samples for genetics evaluation, assessing physical parameters and parasites/disease testing; photographing natural spot patterns; ear-tagging and radio collaring. Recommended anesthesia is Telazol at a dose of 5 mg/kg (2.3 mg/lb) . . . administered by experienced personnel only, with a jab stick or dart from a dart pistol or dart rifle (long range only). Round plastic ear-tags may be applied and should be numbered and non-protruding."

Contact reporters Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com and Tim Steller at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com. Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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